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December 2019 - Year 21 - Issue 6

ISSN 1755-9715

Speaking of Freedom in South Korea

Jonny Bahk-Halberg is an associate professor in the College of English at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, Korea. American by birth, he has spent more than two decades in Korea helping English interpreter-translators improve their language skills. Email:


A startling presentation

In the more than 20 years I’ve spent teaching English speaking and writing at universities in South Korea and the USA, one of my most memorable classroom events was when a public speaking student classroom surprised his classmates and me with a story about a daring escape from a life of terror under a totalitarian regime.

The student talked about his friend from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) who had experienced things that we, seated in a warm, comfortable classroom could never imagine. We imagined what it was like for his friend as he spoke about cold, unheated buildings through the North Korean winter and the painful agony of true, life-threatening hunger; what it was like to see people die of starvation on the streets outside his family’s home. At the age of 10, his friend had been forced to watch a public execution for the first time.

The speaker told us that a few years earlier, his friend, in his 20s, had bribed border guards to take his mother across the river to China from his hometown for a short visit with his sister, who had escaped years before to South Korea. It was planned as a short reunion. The sister had traveled back across the border from her hometown and asked the speaker’s friend to bring mother across the river for a few hours, since the two had not seen each other for almost a decade when she was 17.

But a few minutes after mom and daughter began hugging, sharing stories and tears, the friend received an alert on the phone. His border guard connections were warning him. An alert had been broadcast – the search was on for him and his mother back in the DPRK. It had been discovered that he had left with his mother, and North Korean border officials suspected they had defected. Going back to their home was no longer a possibility for mother and son without facing a firing squad.

The speaker’s friend, a black-market smuggler/entrepreneur, had long experience crossing the border to get supplies from China, and was comparatively well off by North Korean standards. Still, though he had left all his stock behind in North Korea, as well as his life savings from years of business dealings, going back was too risky. They had to leave everything behind to survive.

Their only option was for the sister to guide them on the long overland trip through the backroads and small towns of China to the south, heading for the border of Laos and then on to Thailand. The friend’s sister spoke fluent Chinese, having lived in China for years before eventually settling in Seoul. But she told her mother and brother not to utter a word as they traveled through China or someone would recognize them for what they were, North Korean escapees.

Along the way, the student’s friend and his mother were in constant danger of being arrested. During one long-distance bus trip, when police boarded the bus to check passengers’ papers, the mother was almost found out when she could not respond to Chinese police questioning. His quick-thinking sister, however, with her charm and fluent Chinese, persuaded the police that the woman and young man were deaf and neither could speak at all.

He continued telling the story of his friend’s journey to freedom with his family, nearly 5,000 kilometers from northern China to its southern border, eventually crossing at night into Laos, and again crossing a border into Thailand. Then, almost at the end of their journey, the mother, daughter, and son found themselves in immigration detention, about to be sent back to certain imprisonment and likely death in the DPRK.

It was right then, at this climactic point in his story, that he told us the truth -- he had not really been sharing a story about a friend.

“This all really happened -- to me,” he told the classroom full of spellbound listeners. “It was my sister, my mother, and me. I grew up in North Korea and have been living here in South Korea for the last two years.”

His sister eventually found help to get him and their mother out of detention and later, my student and his mother had found their way to a relatively comfortable life in Seoul, though they still sometimes times missed old friends back in the north.

All of us in the classroom that day were shocked. No one had suspected that one of the students in our class had lived such a harsh life, escaping from the mysteriously different twin country to the north.

Over the next few years, I had many great conversations over lunch or coffee with Seongmin, learning much about him and his life in the hidden country of North Korea just a few miles away from my home in Seoul. I eventually got to see him head off for his graduate studies at an Ivy League university in the United States. I hope my strong recommendation helped him get admitted, but I will never forget how his brief, surprising story helped me get an idea what life is like in the DPRK.

Seongmin’s sister gave one of the most powerful TED talks ever about her experiences (Lee, 2013) and wrote a New York Times bestselling book about her life as a North Korean refugee (Lee & John, 2016). What a gift to be able to share the classroom with someone who had such a powerful life story.


The power of spoken story

Polkinghorne writes that stories have a unique power to explain (1988). Pagnucci goes further, writing of the importance of “a belief in the meaning-making power of stories,” (2004, 48) and “learning to trust more in stories” (54). While I did not realize it at the time, when my student, Seongmin, told the story about his “friend” to our class, we were all drawn into that belief, that trust, without even being aware of it. The vividness of his spoken experience, the drama of the story, had us all transfixed right up until the moment he revealed that he was talking about his own experience rather than that of his friend.

Bruner informs us that stories help make things that are difficult to understand more comprehensible, in a kind of purposeful rationalization “The function of the story is to find an intentional state that mitigates of at least makes comprehensible a deviation from a canonical cultural pattern. It is this achievement that gives a story verisimilitude.” (1990, pp. 49-50).

Ong tells us that sharing stories orally rather than in writing gives them a different kind of power. Hearing a speaker’s message gives listeners a more “close, empathetic, communal identification” with both the message and the messenger than the same message in written form (1988, p. 45).

It was that kind of power that those of us listening in the classroom felt from Seongmin’s story of his perilous escape from North Korea. Another student in another classroom also shared that kind of powerful message with his anger at the way things were in his country.


Story of a changed life

The other student who taught his classmates and me a great deal about the power of orality with spoken anecdotes and stories from his life was a student from China. While I have worked with many Chinese students over the years, most had relatively little to say about world affairs or politics. But this student, who I will call Jim, was different.

Jim had strong opinions and was not shy about sharing them regarding human rights, freedom of speech, and geopolitical issues. And unlike most Chinese students, Jim was very outspoken in his criticisms of repressive government policies, first and foremost with those in his home country.

Jim was studying at Korean universities after weighing his options in China and abroad. With grades not much above average, his prospects for education at one of China’s top schools or scholarships for foreign universities in the West were limited. And while his parents were financially comfortable, they could hardly afford a premium-priced overseas education for Jim.

His best option, he decided, was to study at universities in South Korea. It was here that Jim, with an insatiable curiosity about the outside world, found himself for the first time free from the watchful eye of the Chinese Communist Party, an authority he had lived under all his life. Like a fish unaware of the water surrounding it, Jim never thought about the government control that had enveloped his life since birth.

In Korea, Jim said, his professors and classmates were free to speak about things that were forbidden back in China. While he had some knowledge of what happened in Beijing in 1989 before he came to South Korea, he said, the Chinese government effectively blocks all discussion and allows no criticism about what it calls an “incident,” but most outside observers refer to as the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

“One of my relatives went to Tiananmen Square during the protests,” Jim said. “He escaped before the massacre.” While estimates of civilian casualties in the Chinese military crackdown on dissenters in and around Tiananmen Square in June 1989 range as high as 10,000, probably around 2,000 to 3,000 civilians were killed. (Tiananmen Square, 1999). “No one really knows how many people died in Tiananmen Square,” said Jim. “Officially no one mentions civilians killed, just soldier’s casualties.”

The Tiananmen Square Massacre was one of those things that went unmentioned, something that many Chinese were vaguely aware of, but many young Chinese have no idea about. Like most Chinese citizens, Jim had an implicit understanding that the Chinese government, the Chinese Communist Party, was in charge of what he was allowed to watch, read, say, and listen to. Things that Westerners and many Asians in more open societies take for granted, such as the freedom to speak on political issues, practice our own religion, and associate with who we wish to, were not part of Jim’s normal experience.

According to Amnesty International, the Chinese government continually creates new laws restricting human rights in the name of national security. Human rights supporters are arrested and jailed on vague charges such as “subverting state power” and “picking quarrels and creating trouble.” Illegal detention, religious repression, torture, and major limits on internet access and other human rights violations are widespread throughout China (“Amnesty International,” 2019).

For one who believes strongly in the value of individual human rights and the positive power of liberty, it was interesting to learn that Jim found his path to freedom of thought by studying in South Korea, perhaps not the first place in the world that would come to mind when thinking of a haven of free expression. But compared to China, South Korea is a very open society.

“I was skeptical of Chinese politics and society all my life,” Jim said. “But after Korea I learned much more,” he said. Born in 1993, Jim said “The main difference between me and other Chinese students is I experience(d) different things because of going abroad. Before I came to Korea, I knew that China was not perfect. But after learning more in Korea, I found much more.”

In China, many topics of international affairs were off-limits to his teachers, especially anything that might seem critical of China. “This is China, not South Korea, not the USA,” Jim said. “My teachers in China never talked about things like freedom or independence for Hong Kong or Taiwan. Only my professors in Korea talk about things like that.”

But in Korea, with no censorship on criticism of the Chinese government for actions such as limiting religious activities, repression and detention of minority ethnic groups such as the Uighurs in the Xinjiang region and Tibetan-populated areas of China, Jim said he was free to learn the truth about the good and bad sides of his country.

“The CCP (Chinese Communist Party), it’s a dictatorship. They just do what they want. Never listen to public opinion. They are good at PR to solve problems after the problem happened, but they never prevent problems. They just fix problems afterward. They just shoot people. They put Uighurs in concentration camps. The smart way would be to open up society, but that’s not going to happen soon. The communist party is good at survival.”

Living outside China, Jim got a close look at what life and learning could be like without extensive government control on communication of ideas. He talked about the rise of Chinese nationalism and how closely intertwined it is to Chinese Communist Party control over what people say and do. On issues such as ethnic minority discontent with Chinese rule in Xinjiang and Tibet, calls for democracy in Hong Kong, and continued independence from Mainland China in Taiwan, nationalism in mainland China helps the rulers maintain a stable grip on power.

“For the Chinese people, if they are not outside China, they don’t know the difference between nationalism and propaganda,” Jim added. “You are exposed to it every day all your life.  It’s nothing special to them.”

“I love my country but I don’t love my government,” Jim said.  “The government does things wrong but it’s my country.”

While he dislikes the limitations on thought and expression his government tries to maintain over the population, Jim said there is little he can do about them. He also said he wants to stay in his homeland after finishing his degree.

“After graduation, if I go back to China, I need to keep quiet. I can only talk to my close friends.”

While in some ways, Jim’s future in China may almost seem to be diminished by his Korean experience and what he has learned about his own country and conditions in other places around the world. He said that under the current regime, it was likely to be a long time before things change for the Chinese people in terms of freedom of expression, freedom of religion, an open economy, free access to information, and rule of law.

But he said he would much rather have his experience and education than go back to the days when he believed everything he was told. “I’ve been infected,” Jim joked. “But now that my eyes have been opened, I want to be a person to promote these kinds of change.”



Amnesty International: China. (2019, September 25). Retrieved Oct. 28, 2019, from

Bruner, J. S. (1990). Acts of meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Fisher, M. (2013, Dec. 5). 'The other side of North Korea': A defected smuggler's extraordinary story. The Washington Post. Retrieved from

Lee, H. (2013, Feb.). My escape from North Korea. Retrieved from

Lee, H., & John, D. (2016). The girl with seven names: escape from North Korea. London: William Collins.

Ong, W. J. (1988). Orality and literacy: the technologizing of the word. London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

Pagnucci, G. S. (2004). Living the narrative life: stories as a tool for meaning making. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook.

Polkinghorne, D. (1988). Narrative knowing and the human sciences. Albany: State University Of New York Press.

Tiananmen Square, 1989: The Declassified History. (1999). Retrieved Oct. 28, 2019, from website:


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